Union leader Tony Helfer joined the crowd of protesters who converged upon Bigelow Boulevard Saturday to support a rally at which workers aired their complaints against the region’s largest employer.
“UPMC should stop firing their workers, allow these workers to return to work and allow these workers to choose for themselves whether they want to be represented by the union,” Helfer said.
UPMC employees, union members and other supporters gathered to protest what they consider unfair treatment of laborers by the health care company.
The rally occurred amid allegations that UPMC has fired employees for attempting to unionize, and comes as UPMC workers in food service, medical assistance, transportation and other sectors demand higher wages and the formation of a labor union.
Pitt police estimated that 450 people attended the event, which began around 11:00 a.m. in the busy Forbes-Fifth corridor between the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union. The rally ended at about 12:30 p.m., as protesters began to march west on Fifth Avenue in the direction of the University Store on Fifth as Pittsburgh city police officers diverted traffic and patrolled nearby on bicycles.
The group Make It Our UPMC organized the rally, which included a bandstand, a tented area with food and refreshments and a live performance by the Pittsburgh-based Terrance Vaughn Trio. Pennsylvania Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, presided over the event, introducing 14 guest speakers, including workers and other elected officials.
“There are at least seven employees who have been fired for wearing a pin or talking with their friends and colleagues about a union,” District 4 Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said at the event.
She said the National Labor Relations Board has deemed some of these ex-UPMC employees’ grievances as legitimate and claimed that UPMC has used “intimidation tactics” against workers.
UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said the rally unfairly vilified UPMC.
“We believe that the purpose and intent of the rally is to divert the public from the truth, and cast UPMC hospitals — and the great people who work here every day — in the worst possible light,” she said in an email. “Rallies of this kind demean the excellent care we provide to our patients.”
But Rudiak pointed to UPMC’s recent affiliation with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation — which opposes compulsory unionization — as an attempt “to bust these workers.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, for which Helfer is president of the Local 23 chapter, was one union that came out Saturday. Others included the Service Employees International Union, Unite Here (a hotel, food service, laundry and casino-gaming industry union), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Mine Workers Association.
According to Kreps, UPMC provides its employees with “superior health benefits, retirement benefits that include both a defined benefits pension plan and a savings plan with employer matching contributions, and generous paid time off.” Kreps stated that, including these benefits, the lowest-paid full-time employees earn $21 per hour.
Linda Mazza and Veronica Smith will soon be former UPMC transcriptionists.
They pointed out that, while Kreps’ statement regarding compensation and benefits may be true, full-time workers were being pushed out. The two women, who each earn about $17 per hour, were given the option to quit UPMC or transition on Sept. 20 to a company that UPMC has contracted to do its transcription assignments.
According to Smith, if they choose to work for the contractor, they’ll be paid by the number of lines they transcribe, which would amount to less than the minimum wage.
Additionally, they’d have to pay $79 out of their paychecks every two weeks for a Blue Cross Blue Shield health care plan if they opt to subscribe to their employer’s health care plan.
“So you figure if you make $650, you might have about $375 left for two weeks,” Smith said, estimating what she would take home after taxes.
While Kreps declined to respond specifically to these claims, she stressed that, in addition to workers’ benefits, UPMC provides tuition reimbursement for employees and their dependents who wish to further their education.
“UPMC’s compensation package far exceeds what other industries offer,” Kreps said, “and we continue to provide benefits most major corporations and governments are reducing or eliminating.”
Although the rally focused on workers’ rights, many speakers also criticized UPMC’s status as a nonprofit organization, a status that exempts the company from paying property taxes. Earlier this year, the city filed a lawsuit in a Pennsylvania court challenging UPMC’s tax-exempt status.
Mackenzie Smith (who has no relation to Veronica) lead organizer for Unite Here Local 57, said that UPMC’s real-estate holdings total more than $1.5 billion. These holdings, if taxed, could yield a large amount of money that would benefit local schools and transit systems.
“They have so much potential,” she said. “They give great care, but they need to do the right thing by this community.”